New Line Cinema’s The Golden Compass opens in theaters this week amid much debate and controversy. Based on Philip Pullman’s book, the first of a trilogy, it is set in another world like ours but not. Some are concerned that the book does (and that the movie will) represent Christianity in a false and unflattering light. Certainly Pullman has said, “My books are about killing God.” So he is not being guarded about his intentions.
Having made my way to the halfway point of the third book, I have found the books to be immensely imaginative and creative. The worlds, the framework of his universe, the driving plot line all contribute to a good read. With a few exceptions, I found the characterizations generally disappointing. Somehow I don’t get Lyra. And Will (who shows up in books two and three) hasn’t captured me either. On the other hand, Mrs. Coulter is deliciously evil–one of the best-crafted villains I’ve met in the pages of a book in a long time. (I’m sure Nicole Kidman will be perfect for the role.) Lee Scoresby is as enjoyable a Texas sidekick as you’d ever want exploring the arctic with your pre-adolescent daughter.
But then there are more villains than Mrs. Coulter. Chief among them are the Magisterium (the council that rules the Church in Pullman’s world as there is no pope) and ultimately the Authority (a god who was the first to evolve out of matter and who has hoodwinked angels, humans and others into thinking he is eternal in an attempt to control all). This, of course, is where all the hullabaloo comes in. The Magisterium is responsible for immense wickedness and abuses of power. The Authority is not far behind.
So what should we think of all this? Tony Watkins offers a balanced perspective on the trilogy in Dark Matters, a book that I think will be welcomed by devotees and detractors alike. Tony sat down with Pullman to interview him for the book and offers an appreciative portrait. A coworker here at IVP actually believes the books subvert Pullman’s own viewpoints, for his heroes and heroines actually act out and approve themes of grace, sacrifice and redemption that would have been impossible without the biblical story.
Mark Morford in a no-holds barred piece puts the challenge this way to those who are upset about the books and movie, “If your ancient, authoritarian, immutable belief system is truly threatened by a handful of popular novels, if your ostensibly all-powerful, unyielding creed is rendered meek and defenseless when faced with the story of a fiery, rebellious young girl who effortlessly rejects your stiff misogynistic religiosity in favor of adventure, love, sex, the ability to discover and define her soul on her own terms, well, it might be time for you to roll it all up and shut it all down and crawl back home, and let the divine breathe and move and dance as she sees fit. Don’t you agree?”
Morford’s challenge is valid. This is a case where the proper response is likely not boycott or blanket condemnation but engagement and discussion. To the extent that Pullman’s work feeds into and reinforces existing stereotypes of God and Christians, a response is needed. Rather than dissuading others from hearing a thought-provoking and potentially hostile story, however, let us offer better thoughts and better stories.